In what year did the gods of Mardi Gras allow the first African-American parade, Zulu, to roll in New Orleans? What is the history behind this historic debut?
Zulu had its first king, William Story, in 1909. Then in 1915, the group added floats decorated with palmetto leaves and moss to their walking parades. But the origin of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, officially incorporated in 1916, is at least as interesting as the beginning of Rex.
In the 1800s, New Orleans had many benevolent aid societies, groups that provided insurance and proper burials for their members. One of these groups, an African-American society know as The Tramps, marched on Mardi Gras as early as 1901.
On one auspicious occasion in 1909, a group of men attended a musical comedy called The Smart Set, where they saw a skit called "There Never Was a King Like Me" about a Zulu tribe. This inspired the name Zulu, and that year, in a parody of Rex, William Story took up his royal scepter -- a banana stalk -- and put on his royal crown -- a lard can -- and began a much-loved and acclaimed institution of Carnival.
Everybody knows that Mardi Gras Day is -- besides Super Sunday -- the day to see the famous and elaborately plumed Mardi Gras Indians. But is there a particular place, area or neighborhood to see a lot of them gather? I never can find them.
I hope you read Gambit before the big day because I'm going to tell you something you want and need to know. If you are hankering to see the fabulous Indians, there are several places you can go. There are at least 16 tribes in the city, and if you are downtown, you can go to Orleans and Claiborne streets between 8 am and noon. But if you are Uptown, try the intersection of Washington and LaSalle.
While you are admiring their magnificent costumes and, of course, taking pictures, you could think about the origin of the groups, who have been masking as Indians since at least 1884.
You mentioned Super Sunday, scheduled for around the third week in March, as a time when the Indians appear. There are actually two Sundays; one is Uptown and the other downtown. As it turns out, the patron saint of the Indians is the same as that of the Italians -- St. Joseph -- whose feast day is March 19.
If you need more information, you can call the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council.
Everybody knows that Louis Armstrong was King Zulu in 1949, but who were some of the other more famous African Americans who were kings of Zulu?
I hate to disappoint a reader, but Satchmo was the only "really famous" African-American who reigned as King Zulu. In connection with this great honor, Louis was also featured on the cover of Time Magazine, the first jazz musician to achieve this distinction. He proudly stated, "There's a thing I've dreamed of all my life, and damned if it don't look like it's about to come true -- to be King of the Zulu's parade."
The temperature that March 1, 1949, was in the 40s and 50s, but Louis received a warm welcome from his adoring fans. The crowds on Canal Street were so thick that his float could barely pass. In fact, even before the parade ended, the float started to fall apart, and bits and pieces of it were grabbed up by souvenir hunters.
Since its official beginning in 1916, the Zulu organization has elected a king elected from its members. The lucky gentleman is usually a prominent member of the community -- a business leader, an outstanding professional or a politician.
However, in 1980, in addition to a king, Zulu also had a celebrity guest -- Woody Herman, a clarinetist and bandleader during the big band era between 1936-1949. While Woody, whose bands were called "Herds," was not African American, he, like Louis Armstrong, was universally loved and his orchestra was the first white band to play at Zulu's coronation party. Born in 1913, Woody Herman died in 1987.